SUVs, New Manufacturers, Electric Cars and More
Frank Explains It All (Or At Least Tries)
I got so hung up on the immediate issues of NASCAR in my letter to Steve Phelps last week that I missed issues that are hovering on the horizon (or closer, in some cases). Time to play a little catch-up:
Cars or SUVs – First Ford announced it was all but exiting the car business in favor of SUVs and trucks, and now GM has pretty much done the same, albeit with a vague commitment to electric cars. Given that Chrysler doesn’t sell a whole lot of cars (without needing to announce a cutback), it’s reaching the point where you’re not going to be able to find a car that traces its heritage to a U.S. brand name. SUVs… well, that’s a different story. So what’s NASCAR to do?
It’s a problem that has to be addressed, sooner rather than later. NASCAR already races cars powered by engines of a type (big V8s) that disappeared from dealer showrooms decades ago, and now the same is happening with the vehicles themselves. I know it has been a while since there was anything “stock” about NASCAR “stock cars,” but we can’t get to a point where you’d need somebody my age to say, “I remember when cars used to look like that.”
SUVs are the new standard for passenger vehicles, and if police can use them, why can’t NASCAR? I don’t think there’s any choice, so where do we begin? How about shortening the standard Cup race and adding an “exhibition” SUV race either as a preliminary or after the main event. This might even be the time to get vehicles back to being more stock, and it might get more manufacturers interested. Fire up that Highlander, Larry.
New Manufacturers – No question they’re needed. As I’ve noted in history pieces, there frequently were 10 or more different makes in 1950s Grand National/Cup events, although by the latter decades of the 20th century the number dropped to as few as three – and only two manufacturers: GM and Ford.
We already have the “Big 3,” but the remaining sellers, exclusive of luxury-only brands like Lexus, Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar/Land Rover, account for about the same number of sales. Fiat/Chrysler looks to be #4 by a good margin, but you have to remember that its sales are mostly Jeeps these days, and nobody’s talking about getting them on the track – although an SUV class might change that. Honda and Nissan surely sell more cars and might even sell nearly as many vehicles other than trucks. Hyundai and Kia combined make up the next makes that could enter the fray, with the less likely names of Subaru, Volkswagen/Audi and Mazda following.
Just in case anyone thinks this could never happen, the Nissan racer above is 20 years old
Most of these corporations are involved in some kind of racing, and if NASCAR would race vehicles it would make sense for them to develop into racing machines, it would make sense for some to join the party. Can we do that? Will we?
Electric Vehicles – I didn’t mention Tesla as a potential new competitor, but if the predictions of continued growth in electric cars/SUVs/trucks are correct, we’ve got to think about it. FIA already has a Formula E series for cars that look like Formula One/Indy racers and run on street circuits. At New York in July, 10 different multi-car teams participated, including car manufacturers Audi, Renault, Jaguar, Mahindra (from India; so far only their tractors are sold in the U.S.) and Nio (a Chinese electric car make that also specializes in driver-less vehicles). It’s not that popular, yet, but all kinds of corporate sponsors are on board, seeing the advantage of being identified with a sport that’s moving forward (as opposed to those living in the motoring past).
Formula E action – I’d rather see this done with stock cars
It would seem an easy sell to get companies in the electric vehicle business to get on board with a racing series that – unlike Formula E – uses the actual cars they sell.
My idea is this: Once the SUV “exhibition” series proves itself in NASCAR, it moves to replace cars in Xfinity (and then maybe on to Cup later), and the electric cars take over the “exhibition” slot alongside Cup events.
Drone/Driverless Racing – I could make the same arguments for this as the next step after electric vehicles with drivers, but I think my head would hurt too much if I punted it that far into the future, so for now, you’re on your own with this one.
Engines – Regardless of what future NASCAR race machines look like, IF there’s going to be a place in racing for gasoline-powered engines, they need to become more like those on the street – they’ve got to get a lot smaller. Indy’s done it, Formula One’s done it, so why can’t NASCAR finally enter the 21st century? Why should other manufacturers enter the sport if the engines they’d have to develop would serve no other useful purpose for the brand? They sound great, but they have about as much relevancy as a Civil War cannon would have on a guided missile submarine. Let’s move, we’re overdue.
“Classic” Division – If we do end up moving NASCAR to SUVs and then electric cars, maybe there’ll still be room for a mini-series or preliminary races for “classic” race CARS with big gasoline engines. As a novelty, they might actually catch on.
Once we’ve gone to electric drone racing, we ought to have something left to at least show future generations what these babies could do
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Years ago I was driving up to Rougemont, N.C., to see a race at Orange County Speedway (which might still have been called Trico at the time) and a decent-looking, early-years Mustang passed me on the highway. Imagine my surprise when I got to the track and saw the same car in the pits, part of the new pure stock division.
During the race for this new class, the Mustang got out of shape exiting the second turn and, after a couple efforts to get straightened out, went sideways and rolled over a couple of times, landing on its wheels. During one of the rolls, the trunk came open and a considerable amount of paper flew out onto the track. I can’t swear this part is true, but I really think some of that paper was the driver’s homework. Fortunately, he walked away from the crash, although the car was a bit worse for wear and definitely wasn’t driven home.
This is NOT the Mustang that rolled that day in Rougemont, but the later-that-day transport was similar
In the interests of safety, I’d hardly recommend that exact approach today. Still, something that forces a racer to make do with what’s available might find appeal in today’s world, so I’ll repeat an idea I’ve shared before. It shares the approach taken by the chef/food competition television shows, so maybe gradual elimination of contestants could play a part – or do we already do that in the playoffs?
In this competition, each team gets a stock vehicle and a set amount of money. In the middle of the infield is a yard full of parts. Each team spends its money buying those parts it thinks will lead it to victory. The teams get a set amount of time to upgrade the racing vehicle with their purchase, and then we have a race.
Will the team that spent its money on the engine beat the one that spent it all on suspension parts, or will the car with a little bit of this and a little bit of that come out on top? Would you pay to watch?
Hurry up, guys - the green flag flies in 15 minutes
Finally – I’ll also quickly reiterate my idea that a “something different” approach that might work would entail three short races as part of the day’s overall activity. One would be on a superspeedway (or the current track), one on a short track (built in the infield) and one on a road course (also in the infield). The winner is a really good driver.
We could add a fourth segment involving drones. OK, maybe not.